Real Madrid failed to maintain their rhythm across the 2015-'16 season. In bizarre fashion, a team that relies so heavily on its roster, concentrating on player names and t-shirt sales, rather than team chemistry, was disqualified after fielding an ineligible Denis Cheryshev in the Copa del Rey. Poor form in the La Liga saw them dip over 10 points from the top, and former manager Rafael Benitez was sacked in the first week of January. His replacement, former club star and World Cup winner Zinedine Zidane, steadied the ship. Madrid finished second behind FC Barcelona in the league, and overturned a two-goal deficit against Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, en route to winning their eleventh European Cup.
Zidane’s appointment proved to be a positive board decision. Under Benitez, Madrid lacked pace moving forward. Zidane’s key change in the squad was replacing Colombian playmaker James Rodriguez with a more rigid, box-to-box substitute in the Brazilian Casemiro. The Frenchman's decision to play a flat three of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro, made transitioning from defence to attack much quicker, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale getting more space on either side of the flank to run into.
Poor defensive record
Madrid do not suffer from any one definitive weakness. On the attacking front, the team scored an excess of 110 goals in the league, with their front three of Bale, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo contributing 78. On the other end of the pitch, the team shipped in 34 goals. Though they nearly matched Barcelona’s 112 goals and outscored third-placed Atletico Madrid by a 50-goal margin, their defensive record among top three is the worst. In the long run, scoring more goals, than what you concede has generally been a tactic that Real Madrid have enjoyed success with, but last season their four league defeats between November 2015 and February 2016 effectively cost them the title, conceding it to their arch rivals Barcelona.
In each loss, barring the one against Barca, Real Madrid lost three games with a one-goal deficit (3-2 against Sevilla, 1-0 against Villareal, and 1-0 against Atleti), even after dominating possession and threatening with a similar number of shots off and on target with their opponents. They have not been a victim of bad form, or destructive team unison. It has been a lapse in judgment during crucial moments. Against Sevilla, after taking a one-nil lead, they conceded two goals in 15 minutes and were down 3-1 by the 74th minute. Against Villareal, Roberto Soldado’s eighth-minute goal, proved to be the winner. These are matches that Madrid should have shut down, or fought back with ample time on the clock. They failed on both occasions.
Last year, Benitez bought right-back Danilo, Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic, and goalkeeper Kiko Casilla. Neither of these three were meant to be starters and were to be used as foil players. Apart from these three, Cheryshev, Casemiro and Lucas Vazquez were welcomed back from a loan spell into the main squad. Danilo served as good backup to Dani Carvajal, and stepped in with the latter suffering injuries, but Kovacic failed to impress, although with just limited game time (eight starts and 17 substitute appearances. He failed to find the net and record just two assists. Like every season, Madrid’s bench strength has been an issue.
Lack of bench strength
Since his appointment in January, Zidane refrained from buying any players in the first window of 2016. He relied on existing squad players like Casemiro, Vazquez, and Jese (a total of 42 appearances between the three players coming off the bench). With a looming transfer ban that would prevent Real Madrid from buying any players until January 2018, the team is in desperate need of a deeper, more reliable squad. Madrid are yet to make any significant signings. Till now, they've only re-signed Alvaro Morata from Juventus. However, his future at the club is still in doubt, with a transfer away from Madrid a possibility.
The team’s midfield also looks well packed, and with James Rodriguez opting to stay and fight for a place in this squad. Jese and Isco do not share these views, and both players have been linked with moves away from the Bernabeu. Both Spanish midfielders now in their early 20s, have not gotten enough minutes on the pitch, and are low down in the pecking order on the national squad roster. A move away for both Jese and Isco could result in much more game time. Mateo Kovacic could also follow suit, and return to the Italian Serie A with a loan move, hoping that it will help develop his career too.
This leaves Zidane with Vazquez as his option off the bench. Not the most compelling substitute name, Zidane has swayed away from the possibility of bringing a big name signing to Madrid this summer. Some reports did publish his interest in Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba, but he has since been snapped up by his former employer, Manchester United, for a world record transfer fee of £89 million (Rs 772 crore). With Keylor Navas now the undisputed No. 1, Madrid’s back four seem to be a little thin.
There is balance on the right side with Carvajal and Danilo both developing into fine attacking wing-backs, but a skewed left side of defence, (Marcelo starts, Nacho Hernandez is an option) and an ageing centre-back pair of Pepe and Sergio Ramos could prove to be Real Madrid’s Achilles heel this season. Varane, Madrid’s heir apparent in the centre-half role, too, has had a season riddled with injury, which saw him miss the European Championship. Two or three injuries in defence could turn into a nightmare for Real Madrid this season.
As usual, each year, nothing but a trophy is short of an achievement for a club the size of Real Madrid. The infamous board, chaired by the enfant terrible with a cheque book, Florentino Perez, has shown no mercy, sacking managers within 12 months of appointment, despite Cup victories. From what we’ve seen in the latter half of the previous season, Zidane has marked out a style he likes to employ. Two banks of three ahead of a four-man defence. Ronaldo, Bale, Kroos, Modric and Ramos are players who are at the peak of their footballing prowess, and with only two teams who pose a direct threat to Real Madrid in Spain, as much as losing two points in a single season is enough for Los Blancos to go another year without winning the league, or a major trophy.